Nasser Ishtayeh  /  AP
The bodies of two members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are brought into a hospital in Nablus on Thursday, after the men were slain by Israeli troops in the nearby Balata refugee camp.
updated 2/23/2006 8:03:48 PM ET 2006-02-24T01:03:48

Israeli troops on Thursday killed five Palestinians, including a top militant who said just a day earlier that he would never be caught, in Israel’s largest military sweep since pulling out from the Gaza Strip last summer.

Three of the dead were gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — a violent offshoot of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party — killed during a shootout in their hide-out in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank.

The deaths brought to eight the number of Palestinians killed by army fire since the Balata sweep began Monday. More than 50 have been wounded by live rounds and rubber-coated steel pellets, Palestinian hospital officials said. The military said 15 fugitives have been arrested.

Dozens of jeeps patrolled Balata, an Al Aqsa stronghold and a haven for weapons dealers, and sealed it off from the adjacent city of Nablus. Al Aqsa fugitives have been moving from hideout to hideout since the army raid began.

3 Al Aqsa members slain
Al Aqsa confirmed three of its members, including senior member Mohammed Shtawi, a fugitive, had been killed. On Wednesday, Shtawi told an AP reporter that earlier in the day soldiers surrounded his hideout for five hours, but he and several friends slipped away. “They will never catch me,” he said at the time.

Two soldiers were wounded in the gunfight, one seriously.

A medic who was nearby during the fighting, Khaled Saragic, said that a soldier reacted to the sound of a blast by firing into an assembled group of medics and journalists, wounding three people.

The military denied that soldiers fired indiscriminately.

In two other incidents Thursday, a 19-year-old man was killed when soldiers opened fire on teens throwing stones at a broken-down jeep, and a 22-year-old man was killed by a bullet to the chest as he stood on his roof in Balata, witnesses said. The military said the younger man was holding a firebomb and that the older man was an armed Al Aqsa fugitive.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel charged that soldiers were impeding the movement of ambulances. Late Thursday afternoon, they said, four ambulances were trapped inside the camp. The military said ambulances were not been detained, but said the vehicles had been checked because of attempts to smuggle out fugitives.

Abbas condemned the operation and warned it would endanger a year-old cease-fire, according to the Palestinian WAFA news agency.

In Gaza, backers of the Hamas party marched toward the Palestinian parliament building to protest the actions in Nablus. After winning elections last month, Hamas has taken control of the parliament.

Hamas PM speaks
Addressing the rally, incoming Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Hamas government denounced the “aggression committed against our people” and expressed solidarity with the Palestinians resisting the Israeli military in the refugee camp. He said Hamas has a two-pronged program for the people: “One hand resists, and the other hand builds.”

Israeli forces have been carrying out nightly arrest raids in the West Bank, rounding up suspected militants, but the incursion into the Balata camp is the largest and longest since the summer pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank. Dozens of army vehicles and hundreds of soldiers are involved.

Israeli security officials have been warning that with the pullout, Palestinian militants would switch their operations to the West Bank. Nablus has been a focus of attention for months, with soldiers keeping a tight grip on the city, which is encircled by roadblocks.

Bomb seizures in Nablus
The Israeli military said troops entered Balata after receiving warnings that Al Aqsa and two other militant groups in and around the West Bank city of Nablus were planning attacks against Israelis. Before the raid, soldiers in the Nablus area seized four bomb belts, said Maj. Sharon Assman, an army officer in the area. Such belts are used in suicide bombings.

In another area Thursday, Palestinians threw stones at a jeep and soldiers opened fire, hitting one man in the jaw, witnesses said. Bystanders bundled him into an ambulance and hospital officials later reported him in serious condition. The Israeli military said the man also was targeted because he was holding a firebomb.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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